Congress, as usual, is stuck. Despite Republican promises that once they won control of both houses they’d push through all sorts of laws, they’re not even able to pass most of their own proposals (which is probably a good thing). Another fiscal year has begun with no budget in sight, and the now-routine threat of a default on the national debt will loom, as always, until the last possible minute.
One might hope that the president pro tempore of the Senate, the person who is supposed to be the wise old head guiding the hotheaded young whippersnappers toward good government—or at least toward some government, whether or not it’s good—could show a little leadership to get us out of the morass. But no. Sen. Orrin Hatch instead has decided to take up the Senate’s valuable time with a series of speeches about what he calls “religious freedom,” most of which is better characterized as “religious privilege,” the privilege of religious people to ignore laws that apply to the rest of us. In doing so, he starts out with a radical misstatement of historical fact.
First, he informs us that “The first permanent European settlers here in America were Pilgrims seeking to escape religious oppression.” In fact, the first permanent European settlers here in America were Catholics, not Pilgrims. They established themselves at St. Augustine, Florida, over fifty years before the Pilgrims set sail on the Mayflower. Were they seeking to escape Catholic oppression in Spain? Hardly.
The second set of permanent European settlers here in America weren’t Pilgrims, either. They were the entrepreneurs who established Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607—thirteen years before the Pilgrims set sail. There is nothing at all to suggest that they came to America to escape religious oppression. They came here, basically, to make money. Some thought they could do this by finding gold, as the Spanish were doing in Mexico, but it didn’t take long to determine that tobacco farming was a better option.
In 1585, other English settlers founded what they intended to be a permanent colony at Roanoke Island, in today’s North Carolina. They didn’t succeed. But they too had no motivation of “escaping religious oppression.” So the Pilgrims were only the fourth group of Europeans who attempted to establish a permanent colony in today’s United States. But were they trying to “escape religious oppression?” No—they were actually seeking to create an environment of religious oppression.
The beef the Puritan Pilgrims had with King James I was not that he was too oppressive, but that he was too tolerant. James was well-aware of the blood being spilled across the English Channel in the French religious wars, including the assassination of the French king. He was also painfully aware of how close he himself had come to being blown up in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. His wise reaction to all this was to put a damper on religious involvement in government and to try to keep sectarian difference down to a dull roar. He was no paragon of secularism by today’s standards, but he absolutely infuriated the Puritans, who wanted to live in a civil society run strictly on (their version of) godly principles. Here’s one example: James published a Book of Sports to tell the English what kind of nonreligious activities were perfectly okay to practice on Sundays—everything from dancing and archery to the “having of May games, Whitsun ales and morris dances, and the setting up of May-poles.” The Puritan response was so virulent that he ultimately withdrew it. James was enough of a politician that he was able to fend off the Puritan challenge during his lifetime; his less astute son Charles was ultimately murdered by the Puritan Oliver Cromwell, enabling Cromwell to launch twelve years of vicious theocratic rule over England. Cromwell was following the lead of the Massachusetts Puritans, who simply expelled people like Roger Williams who disagreed with their theology. I’ll take the religious “oppression” of James over that of Cromwell and the Pilgrims any day.
Hatch goes on to describe his pride at being “a descendant of the early Mormon Pioneers who, much like the Pilgrims of the Mayflower, fled persecution and discrimination by abandoning their homes for a new place of refuge.” He’s right about the similarity between the Mormons and the Puritans. But the “persecution” they faced began when a warrant was issued for the arrest of their founder Joseph Smith for the crime of printing fraudulent banknotes. Smith fled prosecution to Missouri, where he tried to convince the Indians that they were the descendants of the lost tribes of Israel, so they would rise up and help him establish a theocratic rule. The Indians thought his command to “claim Jackson County by force, if necessary” was nutty. Smith swore that “We will trample down our enemies and make it one gore of blood from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean. I will be to this generation a second Mohammed, whose motto in treating for peace was ‘the Alcoran or the Sword.’ So shall it eventually be with us—‘Joseph Smith or the Sword!’”
A small civil war followed, which the Mormons lost. They next tried Nauvoo, Illinois, where Smith took the precaution of creating an armed “Nauvoo Legion” half as large as the entire US Army of the day. The real “religious freedom” he wanted, though, was to have as many wives as possible—he seems to have had around fifty, including a mother/daughter pair. When the newspaper-owning husband of one woman he tried to seduce printed an article critical of his polygamy, Smith exercised his religious freedom by dispatching a band of thugs to smash the printing press. After Smith was arrested for this, he sent word for the Nauvoo Legion to exercise even more religious freedom by breaking him out of jail. But a crowd, perhaps suspecting his intention, killed Smith before the Legion could arrive.
Hatch then boasts almost comically that despite their “persecution,” the Mormons “never lost their deep love of the United States and our Constitution.” In fact, Smith’s successor Brigham Young set up in Utah a de facto independent nation, with himself proclaimed as king, boasting that “I live above the law, and so do this people.” Washington sent out an army expedition in 1857 to bring Utah to heel, but the Mormons flatly refused thereafter to support the United States or its Constitution during the Civil War. For decades thereafter, they continued to flaunt their polygamy in defiance of federal law.
Hatch is correct in identifying the Puritans and the early Mormons as examples of what happens when government becomes infused by religion. It will be interesting to learn in the rest of his series of speeches how he thinks these shining examples should guide America in the future.